Purple Tomatoes; The Future of Genetically Modified Food?

Thought LeadersNathan PumplinPresidentNorfolk Healthy Produce

Are purple tomatoes enriched in anti-oxidants the future for genetically modified food? In this interview, we speak to Nathan Pumplin to find out more!

Please can you introduce yourself and tell us about your role at Norfolk Plant Sciences (NPS)?

My name is Nathan Pumplin, and I am President of NPS’s US-based subsidiary, Norfolk Healthy Produce. I have a background in plant biology (Ph.D. from Cornell University, Postdoc research at ETH Zurich in Switzerland) and biotech startups (Joyn Bio), and I have a passion for developing and marketing products that excite and satisfy consumers. I think a lot about the food that my family eats, and we love healthy, tasty, local, and fresh food.

Norfolk Plant Sciences is a spin-out from one of the world’s leading plant science research institutes. Can you tell us more about why NPS was established and what some of your aims and missions are?

NPS was founded to bridge the large gap between cutting-edge scientific knowledge and products available to consumers. Cathie Martin and Jonathan Jones are world-leading scientists, who have succeeded in understanding aspects of biology and using this knowledge to create better plant varieties – nutritionally enhanced or naturally resistant to devastating crop diseases. They recognized that these discoveries were having a small impact in the world, because of consumer fears around GMOs and the lack of product development and marketing.

The aim of NPS is to share the benefits of biotechnology – better nutrition for people and better environmental impacts for the climate.

NPS’s official vision is: We are building a future where our society lives sustainably, in good health, and in harmony with nature by embracing science and biotechnology.

Purple Fleshed Tomato

Image Credit: Norfolk Plant Sciences

Chronic diseases are a global health problem. One way to help prevent these diseases is through an improved diet. How important is our diet to our overall health?

NPS has looked to scientific studies in diet and health areas, and we are convinced that a diet high in a diverse mix of fresh fruits and vegetables is extremely beneficial to overall health. Our founder, Prof. Cathie Martin, has also collaborated on human health studies. As a diabetic, she has spent her life carefully focused on diet, both to control sugar intake and also for its general impact on health.

NPS has expertise in plant sciences, and we have developed tools to increase the levels of beneficial nutrients in common foods to offer new options for our diet. There are many scientific studies that demonstrate the beneficial effects of eating anthocyanins. The purple tomatoes were shown specifically to improve longevity in mouse studies, and we look forward to growing collaborations with researchers working on human diet studies. We are marketing our purple tomatoes in a similar way as other vegetables and fruits: They are healthy, delicious, fresh foods, and not medications.

At NPS, you are currently developing a dark purple-fleshed tomato. Can you describe how you are developing this tomato and what nutritional benefits it will have?

The purple-fleshed tomato is high in purple pigments called anthocyanins – the same antioxidant nutrients that make blueberries and eggplants “superfoods.” Cathie’s research lab developed a simple tool that makes any type of tomato purple, we are now developing different types of purple tomatoes to meet different consumer demands – cherry tomatoes for snacking and salads, processing tomatoes for juice and sauce, large beefsteaks for sandwiches.

There are other purple-skinned tomatoes on the market, made through traditional breeding. These tomatoes have 10x lower levels of anthocyanins relative to our tomatoes, but they are a good sign that consumers are buying purple tomatoes and another solid, diverse tomato option at the store.

Despite the nutritional benefits of your purple tomato, many people still have fears surrounding genetically modified food. Why is this and what more needs to be done to help educate people on the potential benefits of this food?

People are understandably skeptical of new foods and new technology. The reasons that people are fearful are complex and deeply personal, and NPS respects people’s choices. We are fortunate to live in a world where many choices are available, including organic and non-GMO verified foods. We also know that many consumers WANT to purchase foods that were improved using genetic engineering, either because they have looked into the science and seen the overwhelming evidence that it is safe, or because they were less fearful, to begin with. NPS is focused on developing products to serve those consumers with a new option because unfortunately, very few bioengineered foods are currently available.

Of course, we hope that this will start to open some people’s minds and reduce the overall level of fear about GMOs. We are offering a choice for those interested, and certainly not on a crusade to make everyone love GMOs.

What do you believe the future of genetically modified food looks like? Do you believe we will see more and more people eating genetically modified food in the future?

I do believe that bioengineered foods will become more common in the future. I believe we have a crisis of nutrition in the world, that can be improved by people eating more healthy, fresh produce. I also believe that we are living in a time of climate crisis and that we must continue to improve agricultural output, both quantity, and quality while improving the net climate impacts.

As a plant scientist, I am familiar with our 10,000-year history of improving plants and farming, and I view genetic engineering as one powerful tool, but not a silver bullet. It can be powerful if combined with traditional plant breeding and improved management practices that farmers have been innovating for generations.

I see a world with growing fear about climate change and nutrition, based on many solid facts, and declining fear about GMOs.

Genetically Modified Food

Image Credit: metamorworks/Shutterstock.com

What is next for Norfolk Plant Sciences? Are you involved in any exciting upcoming projects?

Our current project is very exciting already! We are currently focused on bringing high-quality purple tomatoes to enthusiastic and demanding consumers. We do have a pipeline of other healthy foods, such as tomatoes with resveratrol and anthocyanin-rich citrus. In ten years, expect to see NPS marketing a portfolio of healthy and distinctive foods.

Where can readers find more information?

For updates on purple tomato products and availability: https://www.bigpurpletomato.com/

Additional background on NPS: http://www.norfolkplantsciences.com/

Original paper describing purple tomato: https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.1506

About Nathan Pumplin

I am President of Norfolk Healthy Produce, Inc, and responsible to build our company from an idea to delivering products to consumers in North America. I grew up in a family of scientists and teachers but always had a fascination with advertising and consumer behavior. I initially studied advertising at Michigan State University, then became interested in biology and evolution and did two years of research in a top lab. I moved on to scientific research roles at Cornell, ETH Zurich, and UC Davis, and was successful in publishing many ground-breaking papers in top journals.Nathan Pumplin

My heart pushed me to find a career that would mix my scientific interests with my marketing interests, and I followed this in 2018 to the biotech startup Joyn Bio, which is developing more sustainable alternative fertilizers. I began working with the NPS founders in 2021 (Jonathan Jones and I had met several times over the years, and even published a paper together in Science in 2006), and I recognized that the purple tomato was an exciting product of science with a huge opportunity to become a beautiful, readily available product and the subject of an uplifting, hopeful story about the benefits and potential of biotechnology.

Emily Henderson

Written by

Emily Henderson

During her time at AZoNetwork, Emily has interviewed over 300 leading experts in all areas of science and healthcare including the World Health Organization and the United Nations. She loves being at the forefront of exciting new research and sharing science stories with thought leaders all over the world.

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